Sam McManis

Discoveries: New mountain-biking museum opens in Marin, birthplace of the sport

The Marin Museum of Bicycling, housing the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, opened in Fairfax in June.
The Marin Museum of Bicycling, housing the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, opened in Fairfax in June. smcmanis@sacbee.com

Nothing personal against Crested Butte, Colo., a lovely mountain ski town that, in summer, becomes a mountain biking playground with trails breathlessly described with the intensifier “epic” and often affixed with the exclamation, “Dude!”

But, sorry, no way the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame belongs there. Anyone even vaguely familiar with fat-tire culture knows that the only acceptable spot is in Marin County, birthplace of the sport. To locate it anywhere else would be akin to, say, choosing Branson. Mo., over Nashville for the Country Music Hall of Fame – acceptable, perhaps, but lacking that twang of authenticity.

This summer, after Crested Butte graciously ceded its reign as keeper of mountain biking history and lore after 25 years – the museum owners were retiring – all was made right in the mountain biking universe. Now, in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, where a bunch of crazy kids in the early 1970s started bombing down trails on old balloon-tired Schwinn junkers, the Marin Museum of Bicycling and Mountain Biking Hall of Fame has opened. It features mementos from the erstwhile site and much, much more from the garages, workshops and pickup trucks of mountain biking pioneers who still call Marin County home.

It’s a handsome 3,000-square-foot space that formerly was a grocery store in this monied West Marin burg of 7,607. Just three months after its opening, the museum has emerged as a nexus of biking culture, hosting clinics, lectures and film screenings and a patio flanked by a 30-foot statue of a mountain bike where folks can sit and geek out on gears and hubs and such.

Even on a lazy Thursday afternoon, the place was hopping. Teens occupied an alcove in the back, watching videos of BMX stunts and giving voluble approval; a young family perused the collection of vintage 19th-century bikes that ranged from a crude wood-framed, iron-wheeled contraption to a tricked-out 1890 tricycle featuring one of those giant penny-farthing wheels; a Lycra-clad road cyclist clomped by in his cleats to check out the collection of mid-1970s jury-rigged mountain bikes. And you never know just who might pop in; on this day, it’s Clark Natwick, five-time national cyclocross champion and mountain biker.

Presiding over this biking bacchanal was Joe Breeze, one of mountain biking’s founding fathers, curator of the museum/hall and self-described “cycling evangelist.” Not only is Breeze, 61, a font of ripping yarns about the seat-of-the-pants early days of risking limbs and brain cells careening down Mount Tam’s rocky pathways, but he and buddies Otis Guy and Marc Vendetti were the driving (riding?) forces behind bringing the Hall of Fame “home” after residing in a small corner of a heritage museum in Crested Butte since 1988. Basically, all they did was ask Don and Kay Cook, the Crested Butte site’s caretakers, who graciously agreed.

“I try not to be too partial, and I acknowledge that many places had their early days of mountain biking, but, yeah, Marin is the place,” Breeze said. “There’s no one inventor of the mountain bike or mountain biking. No one thing. It’s just a series of steps. A total lark. Nobody planned all this.”

The “all this” to which Breeze refers is the sport and recreational juggernaut that is mountain biking. According to the International Mountain Bicyling Association, mountain biking boasts more than 40 million participants and rakes in $53.1 billion in sales annually. Impressive as the numbers alone are, they simply boggle the mind once you visit the Hall of Fame and learn of the sport’s humble, dirt-clod-encrusted roots.

A good place to start is the left corner of the back wall where a gleaming black 1941 Schwinn DX Excelsior, what today might be dubbed a “cruiser” bike, sits. Right next to it, in faded and chipped blue paint, is the same model, stripped of the fender, chain guard and other fanciful accoutrements. What’s left is the bare metal frame and balloon tires – “a nice svelte 50 pounds for flying down Mount Tam,” Breeze jokes.

These old Schwinn junkers were purchased in the mid-1970s for, at most, $5 by Breeze, Guy and Vendetti when they made the rounds to bike shops ostensibly looking for 19th-century bikes to restore as a hobby. The trio were hard-core road cyclists, part of the Velo Club Tamalpais that would produce mountain bike royalty such as Gary Fisher, a national champion and the first to go into commercial mountain bike production.

When Vendetti first told Breeze to buy that old Schwinn junker, “I looked at him like, are you crazy?” Breeze recalled. “What am I gonna do with that? Marc had earlier ridden down Mount Tam with some guys called the Larkspur Canyon Gang. I remember the Larkspur Gang. As a road cyclist, I’d ride by and think, ‘Oh my gosh, how inefficient these guys are on these heavy bicycles.’ Then I saw some friends of mine at Tam High (School) were doing it. To this day, old friends remind me that I once said I’d never ride a fat-tire bike.”

Breeze not only rode them but became the first designer of mountain bikes in 1977 – making a dozen or so for friends. He did it out of necessity, he said, because the old Schwinn frames kept breaking on the trials.

“I welded the frame together and built one for the first time with shiny new parts. I called it ‘The Breezer.’ It’s pretty elemental – just bead-blasted and nickel-plated, a durable finish.” The model is mounted on the back wall, but actually it’s the second one he built. The first is now displayed at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History as America’s first mountain bike.

Breeze, an inaugural Hall of Fame member, just shakes his head that his early-20s labor of love now resides in two museums. He’s had his bikes displayed at fancy art galleries in San Francisco and at an exhibition at the San Francisco International Airport.

“It’s just amazing how far this thing has come,” he said. “Back then, it was all about having fun in the woods. There were no dollar signs attached to this. You did it because it was fun.”

The museum has a photo of a young Breeze in 1977 standing next to the original “Breezer” just beyond the finish line of the Repack race – a 2.1-mile, 1,300-foot descent west of Fairfax that is believed to be the first organized mountain bike-specific race in the country. He is wearing hiking boots, a pair of Levi’s, a denim Western shirt with frayed hems, gardening gloves with the fingers cut off and a satisfied smile. He won the race.

By 1979, Breeze had showed his off-road frames to noted road-bike builder Tom Ritchey, who made multigeared bikes for Fisher, among others. Fisher sparked an interest among the wider bicycle world when he showed off the mountain bike in an interview with a national magazine, which features “these crazy hippies riding big bikes off road.”

A year later, Ritchey gave Fisher and pal Charlie Kelly a few bikes to sell, and the enterprise proved so popular that Fisher and Kelly started a manufacturing and retail business called MountainBikes. They sold 160 bikes in 1980. But, by 1983, sales took off and other, mainstream bike manufacturers glommed onto the “fad,” which by 1990 grew into a legitimate sport and, in 1996, was contested in the Olympic Games.

It’s been a dizzying ride, for sure, for the mountain bike. Breeze’s honey-colored hair may have gone gray but he’s still trim and fit and still bombs down Mount Tam trails.

“I just rode down Repack on Tuesday,” he said. “A lot slower. We were definitely a bunch of crazy guys back then.”

Crazy, yes. But visionary (or maybe just lucky) enough to create a whole sport and subculture from five-buck Schwinn discards, bikes even the paperboy wouldn’t deign riding.

Marin Museum of Bicycling and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame

Where: 1966 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Fairfax

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays

Cost: $10 general; $5 ages 12-17; $3 ages 6-11

More info: (415) 450-8000; mmbhof.org

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